The Best “Rise And Fall” Stories Of The Video Game Industry

When it comes to the video game industry, I have a weakness for “inside-baseball” style stories. Obviously, it’s better  for everyone when a company completes its development cycle and successfully releases its game. The only problem with all the successes is that few of them make for interesting reading. “We all worked very hard and then we released our product” is rather dull, even if it’s the goal everyone strives to attain day after day.

No, what makes a good “inside the industry” story are the companies that don’t make it; the ones that go down in flames. What goes on in those companies is as interesting to an observer of human behavior as it is to speculate about their products and what could have been.

Obviously, taking an interest in this topic has to come with an understanding that these were not characters in a book, but real people whose lives and livelihoods were affected by these events. Nevertheless, the collapse of these two companies was, in my opinion, nothing short of spectacular. I think it’s worth revisiting the stories of their respective demises.

Ion Storm
Article: A hardcore elegy for Ion Storm (Salon.com)
Original publication date: Jan 2, 2002.
Choice quote:

No place was more aptly named. John Romero was the focus of this industry love-hate affair: his popular games and extravagant lifestyle made him an icon in the industry. But with great success came great antipathy, not just for John, but also for many of his employees.

What started out as a video gamer’s heaven turned into a public hell of walkouts, firings, lawsuits and litigation. Chat rooms and Web sites devoted daily commentary to analyzing, bemoaning or laughing at every move John made. He went from being one of the industry’s most respected figures to one of its most pilloried. Few bothered to defend him or the company.

 38 Studios
Article: End Game: Inside the Destruction of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios (Bostonmagazine.com).
Original publication date: August 2012.
Choice quote:

Schilling’s harshest critic in the online exchange was Bill Mrochek, the vice president of online services, whose wife required a bone marrow transplant at the time their healthcare disappeared. “Are you going to admit that your stupid hubris, pride, and arrogance would not allow you to accept that we failed — and help shut it down with dignity?” he asked Schilling.

Mrochek was talking only about 38 Studios’ dramatic final weeks, but as interviews with Schilling, members of his former staff, and others associated with the company show, he might as well have been describing 38 Studios from the moment that Schilling — lacking any business experience, but full of the same confidence, bravado, and determination that made him a baseball legend — decided he could build a billion-dollar video-game company.

If you have any other stories of game developers or publishers collapsing in a dramatic fashion, feel free to share your links in the comments. I’d be interested in seeing what else is out there.

If you’d like an even deeper look at Ion Storm’s demise, I recommend Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner. It’s a fascinating read.

This Week In Terrifying Theoretical Science

If you ever need something to cause you to reflect on the futility of life, look up “fate of the Universe” on Google and do a bit of reading. The Big Freeze, the Big Rip, the Big Crunch . . . there aren’t too many scenarios in which the Universe makes it out alive at the end of time. Even the most optimistic scenario, the Big Bounce, still ends with this universe dying so a new one can take its place.

But that’s deep time. The Big Freeze will be about 10^100 years from now, which is an unimaginably vast length of time. Even the soonest possible fate, the Big Rip, will still take 22 billion years. Nothing for us to worry about, right?

Except that maybe we won’t have to wait that long. Turns out the Universe could collapse at any moment:

Danish scientists say an expanding bubble of existential doom could crush the Universe into a tiny ball. And crazily, the odds of this collapse is higher than previously thought.

This theory isn’t actually new. But the scientists who conducted the new study say previous calculations were incomplete. Their new, more precise calculations, now show that (1) the universe will probably collapse, and (2) a collapse is even more likely than the old calculations predicted.

You can check out the article for the how and what for what a Universal collapse would actually mean, but practically speaking, it’s The End. Of everything.

That’s not the scary part. We already knew the Universe is going to die someday; current physics do not allow for a scenario in which the Universe survives forever, as mentioned before.

The scary part is that it could be happening right now:

“The phase transition will start somewhere in the universe and spread from there,” says Jens Frederik Colding Krog, PhD student at the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics Phenomenology (CP3) and co-author of an article on the subject that appears in the Journal of High Energy Physics. “Maybe the collapse has already started somewhere in the universe and right now it is eating its way into the rest of the universe. Maybe a collapse is starting right now, right here. Or maybe it will start far away from here in a billion years. We do not know.”

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that if a Universal collapse is happening right now on the other side of the Universe, it would travel at the speed of light, meaning that it would take a while to reach us. On the other hand, we’d probably know about it juuuust long enough to panic and contemplate our coming demise.

So, you know, there’s that.

Actually, there is other good news; all it would take is the existence of other, currently unknown elementary particles to call the whole model of collapse into question.

Hopefully you’re out there somewhere, little particles. I rather like existing and would hate to see all of reality buckle in on itself. It would seem a rather ignominious end.

In Which I Agree With Jeff Flake About Something

So the government shut down today. Fortunately for yours truly, I’m employed by a level of government that has so far managed to remain functional, so I get to keep coming into work every day. I am very relieved by this fact, although I admit that the idea of not having to work did sound pretty good this morning when my alarm started chiming away.

I wanted to point out something my state Senator, Jeff Flake, said in an article, if only because before today, I don’t think I’ve agreed with Jeff Flake about anything. From an article in the New York Times:

The Republican leadership in both houses of Congress have accused their Democratic counterparts and Mr. Obama of failing to entertain even the smallest changes to the health care law, which they have said is deeply flawed and harmful to businesses.

But among the rank and file, more and more Republicans are saying they believe they have no cards left to play.

“We’ve called their bluff, and they didn’t blink,” said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. “At this point it would kind of strain logic to assume that going deeper into this when Republicans are likely to get the blame will benefit us more.”

Bold emphasis is mine.

Last week, I was discussing the then-hypothetical government shutdown and described the situation as a game of Poker (Texas Hold ‘Em, of course). The Republicans are trying to bluff with a pair of threes while the Democrats are sitting comfortably on a nice King-high straight. The only difference between my assessment and Flake’s is that Flake suggests the Democrats kept their nerve even when Republicans called their bluff. In my scenario, the Democrats weren’t even trying to bluff. They didn’t need to bluff. They knew who did not have the political capital to keep up in this high stakes game and they knew who would be paying out the nose for the resulting fallout. Hint: not them.

The frustrating and somewhat scary part is that the Republicans played their hand anyway even though rationally, they should have folded as soon as the cards were dealt. It speaks to the level of dysfunction within a particular group of that particular party, which is frankly terrifying.

The sooner Republican voters oust this fringe element that has turned their party into a gibbering mess, the better it will be for all of us. Right now, we’re not stuck with a deep schism between a conservative party and a liberal party. We’re watching the struggle between a slightly-right-of-center party and an insane party.

Contrary to popular conservative depictions of socialist liberals such as myself, the majority of us don’t look forward to the Republican party’s spectacular and implosive collapse. Indeed, we’re rational enough to realize that in such a scenario, the deposed would do all in their power to drag everyone down with them. Which, come to think of it, seems to be exactly what’s happening right now.